Rand Paul declares war: What's behind the Tea Party senator's latest stunt

Rand Paul thinks we need a war declaration against ISIS, not just an AUMF. Well, OK?

Published November 25, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Rand Paul                                       (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Rand Paul (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Rand Paul wants Congress to declare war on ISIS. Not just to pass an authorization for the use of military force -- typically how these things are done in the postwar era -- but an old-timey joint declaration of war from Capitol Hill.

Look, we all know that Rand Paul is a great man of principle who would only ever do things out of a deeply felt conviction for the truth, never for politics. And yet we can't help noticing how neatly this top legislative priority of his corresponds with his political interests. A war declaration allows him to a) brag to the hawks within his party about how he introduced a WAR DECLARATION, b) show the Constitutional Conservatives how he restored constitutional war-making authority to the legislature, where it belongs, and away from the tyrannical executive-action-crazed King Obama, and c) tell his anti-interventionist supporters that the war declaration he introduced restricted the overall level of warring permitted. It allows him to maintain the mantle of Lone Defender of the Constitution while offering something to both his anti-interventionist political base and the hawkish GOP foreign policy establishment that he hopes to impress. But again, these factors never entered into his thinking.

If Paul's move is to be criticized, then, criticize it as a stunt. People who believe that ongoing open-ended military activity should rest on a solid legal foundation want Congress to vote on authorizing the ISIS conflict, but there hasn't exactly been a clamor for a Declaration of War instead of an AUMF. An AUMF is fine! And an AUMF that reforms the other post-9/11 AUMFs is even better.

One thing Paul's getting criticism for is supposedly changing his mind regarding the use of "boots on the ground." The Daily Beast writes about how Paul's war declaration draft "allows boots on the ground," in apparent contradiction to his previous position:

Perhaps most surprisingly, Paul’s resolution will allow for limited use of boots on the ground “as necessary for the protection or rescue of members of the United States Armed Forces or United States citizens from imminent danger [posed by ISIS]… for limited operations against high value targets,” and “as necessary for advisory and intelligence gathering operations.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast in September, Paul said he was against the idea of U.S. forces on Middle East soil. “I don’t think there needs to be any American soldiers over there on the ground,” he said. “I don’t mind helping them through technical support, through sophisticated intelligence, drones, Air Force, etc.”

He added: “The people on the ground fighting these battles, going hand-to-hand with ISIS, need to be their fellow Arabs and those who, I think and hopefully do, represent civilized Islam."

We here at Salon Dot Com are quick to notice and call out instances of Paul flipping positions ... but this honestly doesn't seem like one of those cases.

There was an original flip-flop months ago with regards to Paul's position on ISIS. He had been arguing for months -- years! -- about staying out of Syria entirely; as soon as those beheading videos came out, he, like many of his fellow politicians, developed a sudden thirst for "destroying ISIS."

It would be nice if we could stop pretending, even though it makes for easy stories, that the "no boots on the ground" position means literally not one pair of American boots can touch foreign soil. "No boots on the ground" is a metaphor for military action that doesn't involve the deployment of ground combat troops to fight a ground war. The "boots on the ground" that Paul would allow for -- intelligence, training, rescue and certain special operations missions -- are that same that Obama's "no boots on the ground" policy allows for, or that even Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff's narrowly tailored AUMF allows for.

The president has asked Congress to begin drafting a new authorization of force, something that Congress may or may not do. As we've written, the most important thing that needs to come out of this is a clear, coded restriction against the deployment of ground combat troops to fight a ground war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Under current law, the only thing standing between a bombing campaign and an all-out ground war is the president's judgment, and this status quo needs to be changed before either Obama's mood swings or President Ted Cruz takes office. Rand Paul's war declaration, while procedurally baroque, mostly restricts the deployment of ground combat troops. The only thing we'd recommend tightening is that language about "limited operations against high value targets." What if a president's lawyers decided that everyone in ISIS is a "high value target"? (We're paranoid about this stuff because the U.S. tends to get mired in endless ground wars all the time, etc.)

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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